Vir Dolorum

23rd October, 2008

[High resolution image]

Lorenzo Monaco (circa 1370 - 1423), 1405. Tempera on wood.

I went to a museum yesterday, and saw this, and wanted a picture of it. If I were rich, I'd have bought the painting, but as it is, I bought the postcard. I realised there was no image of this online, so I scanned the postcard and here it is.

For all I know, this is a rather unusual pose of Christ, with His arms on Himself, and it intrigued me. Plus He is a beautiful Christ.

As to the title, with my little Latin knowledge, I think it may mean "man of pain" or "suffering man", or something like that. "Vir" means "man", as in "virility", but it may also mean "life", though I am unsure (I think not).

So, after this brief description of the painting and how it got to here, let's get deeper. But before I do, let's make sure you understand I primarily intended to just show you this painting, because I couldn't find it anywhere else on the internet. I am no specialist of that period of time, and no art historian.

What first struck me with this painting was the fact that Christ doesn't have His arms in a cross shape, as is usual. Then I noticed the colour of His skin, and His face. So what of all this? First question is what kind of Christ is this. If you pay attention, you'll know it's the dead Christ, because He does have the Holy Wounds. Look at His visible hand: there is a stigmata in it, which implies this is after His Crucifixion. Also, and equally discrete, is the spear wound in His side (our left, His right).

If you want to be a realist to the extreme, you will argue that such a tiny hand wound has been caused by a rather diminutive nail, and that no nail this size could support the body of a grown man. Many among you know that a nail in the palm like this would not be able to bear the weight of Christ. Still, many among you also know that the word for "hand" used in the Gospel included the wrist in the definition, and that a nail in the wrist could support the weight.

The deathly hue of Christ's body suggests His being dead more than the wounds do. In the background, you can see the Cross, although it is mostly hidden by Christ's halo. I love this painting because Christ seems so peaceful in this (and that isn't a typical characteristic of the dead, some are, some aren't) and I don't know, this has what most classical paintings don't have. A something special. His eyes look almost Asian, like some Western Buddha of sorts. And His features are at the very least rather feminine. Christ is rarely depicted as a muscular type of man. His nipples and navel are very faded-looking, perhaps a suggestion that those human attributes are further away from Him than they are for regular humans - given that a navel is the perpetual reminder that you were once a fetus, and that nipples mark you as a feeding creature, if you're a woman, and that, if you're a man, you have once been a female as a fetus - but it could also simply be that those elements faded because of the passage of Time.

One thing I confess I am ignorant of is this pink-looking basin at the bottom of the image. I don't know what it could be. Perhaps it is a bathtub of the kind they used in the Renaissance, which maybe they used to wash the Body of Christ, because you obviously don't see any blood on this corpse. It's only a guess, other paintings depict Christ on the Cross itself and there is no blood to be seen either, so it is arguable. [Someone commented to say it's actually a sarcophagus; I don't know if it is or what.]

Back to the arms. Usually, Christ has His arms outreached, because of the Crucifixion (even though this isn't one) and I have never seen Christ portrayed with this pose. In this one, He seems to protect Himself. This Christ looks like a baby in his sleep. This is after His Passion, but before His Resurrection. It is a still moment of peace before the great change.

I hope you appreciated seeing this painting.